Plague: How it began!

The Italian town of Genoa was one of the busiest ports in Europe. Ships sailed from Genoa to trade all over the Mediterranean and into the Black Sea. Some goods were even shipped around the coast of Spain and France to England. Merchants traded many goods from Asia such as spices, precious metals and silk. They didn’t know, however, that the plague had broken out in Asia and was fast spreading westwards.


      Crews carrying goods back to Italy from Caffa took the plague with them. On some of the ships, every single member of the crew died at sea. When it became known that sailors on Genoese ships were suffering from the plague, Italian ports refused to allow them to enter. So they sailed to the southern coast of France instead.

        Plague in Europe

        In December 1347, the plague broke out in Marseilles. From there it spread rapidly all over France. Because people had no idea how the plague was carried, there was nothing to stop it spreading. Rich and poor alike fell victim to it. In some places, rich people were able to escape the plague for a while, by moving away from an infected area. But eventually there was nowhere left to run to: every city, town and village was affected.

        Wherever the Black Death took hold, at least one person in four died in dreadful pain. Sometimes all the people in a village or a town were killed by the plague.

          Plague in England

          With the war continuing between France and England it was only a matter of time before the same disaster hit England. The chronicler Geoffrey the Baker described its progress:

          “At first it carried off almost all the inhabitants of the seaports in Dorset, and then those living inland, and from there it raged so dreadfully through Dorset and Somerset as far a Bristol. The men of Gloucester refused to allow people from Bristol into their region, as they all thought that the breath of those who lived amongst people who died of plague was infectious.

          But at last it attacked Gloucester, then Oxford and London, and finally the whole of England with such violence that scarcely one in ten of either sex was left alive. As there were not enough graveyards, fields were set aside for the burial of the dead.”

          William Dene, a monk of Rochester, described the effect of the plague on one household:

          “The Bishop of Rochester didn’t keep many servants or retainers. Yet he lost four priests, five gentlemen, ten serving men, seven young clerks, and six pages, so that not a soul remained to serve him in any post…

          During the epidemic, many chaplains and paid clerics would serve only if they were paid excessive salaries … priests hurried off to places where they could get more money than in their own benefices … There was also so great a shortage of labourers and workmen of every kind in those days that more than a third of the land over the whole kingdom lay uncultivated.”



          When we think of chivalry, the most likely image to spring to mind is one of the perfect gentleman – an impeccably mannered individual who displays gentle and courteous behaviour, especially towards women.

          The word ‘chivalry’ has its earliest roots in the French word for horse, cheval, and a knight in that same languare is called a chevalier, the ambassador of la chevalerie (chivalry). The chevalier was a horseman equipped with lance and sword for battle. As time progressed, the knight’s image grew in sophistication, and by the end of the eleventh century knighthood had come to denote a person of noble birth, often possessing property, whose responsibility it was to uphold certain religious, moral and social systems.

          No one can put a precise date to the birth of chivalry, but it is generally agreed that it was at its height between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, falling into decadence and decline during the fourteenth, ultimately to disappear in the fifteenth century.

            The Crusades

            The first Crusade was proclaimed in 1095 by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in France. “A people without God,” he exlaimed, “the son of the Egyptian slave, occupies by force the cradle of our salvation – the country of our Lord.” Every person of nable birth, it was urged, should take a solemn oath before a bishop that he would “defend to the uttermost the oppressed, the widow and the orphan”.

            Although it remained a sin to kill Christians, a pilgrimage to the Holy Land involving the slaughter of the “Saracen infidels” who attacked Christ’s sacred tomb would be quite acceptable in the sight of God. As a reward for this great work, knights would receive plenary indulgence upon their return to Europe.

              The People’s Crusade

              The First Crusade, which became known as the People’s Crusade, was not quite what the Pope had foreseen, however. The call to arms was taken up by a far greater portion of the peasantry than the Church would have liked. Full of savage passion and ignorant faith, the undisciplined rabble marched eastwards, massacring Jews in the Rhineland, attacking and pillaging Hungary and Bularia until, finally, they were ambushed and slaughtered themselves by the Turks in Asia Minor.

              crossChristian chivalry was yet in its infacy, but slowly, through the Church’s refusal to abandon its crusading ideal, it began to assume a more definite aspect, and by the time the official army of the First Crusade travelled to Constantinople the following year, the nobility rather than the persantry dominated the ranks. For now, as the century drew to a close, it was the custom for every noble father to educate his son in the orders of knighthood. The Crusades continued and the great Crusading Orders were established. By the early twelfth century, the Church had begun to take control of the ceremony of knightly investiture. Religion had succeeded in consecrating knighthood to that most lordly vocation every young man of gentle birth longed to follow.

                The Knight’s Education

                At the age of seven, a boy with ambitions to be a knight usually had to begin their training. The boy was taken from his home and placed in the service of a neighbouring lord (who was a fully-fledged knight). Here, the boy took up his office as page. He was taught implicit obedience to the wishes of his lord and lady. He served them at table, he learned to ride, and he accompanied his lord on various excursions. It was left to the lady of the manor to develop the gentler aspects of the boy’s character. She schooled him in the basic rules of chivalry, discussed love and religion with him and supervised his musical training.

                At the age of fourteen, the page was usually promoted to the higher grade of squire. During a religious ceremony, he exchanged his dagger for a manly sword and received moral instruction on its correct usage. His duties now were far more varied and challenging. He became proficient in the use of sword, lance and battle-axe. He took care of his lord’s armour, followed him to war, supplied him with fresh arms, dragged his body from the battlefield if he fell, and buried him if he were killed.

                At the age of twenty-one, if he had served his lord well, the squire was judged eligible to receive the honour of knighthood. Many squires, however, remained devoted to their lords an entire lifetime.

                  Ceremony of Knighthood

                  That a knight’s sword should uphold the dignity of the Church as central to the notion of Christian chivalry and it was considered only proper that the ceremony which elevated him from the position of squire should be rich in religious symbolism.

                  The young man was expected to fast the day before his initiation and to spend the night in prayer. On the following morning, he was stripped of his clothing and taken to bathe for purification. He was then dressed in a red robe (symbolising the blood to be shed in the course of duty), and over this robe was placed a black doublet (symbolising the mortality of mankind).

                  After the high mass had been chanted the young man approached the alter and handed his sword to the bishop or priest. It was laid upon the alter and blessed.

                  The religious part of the ceremony completed, the candidate was led before the lord who intended to knight him. Once he had given a satisfactory response to the questions which challenged his motives in demanding the honour of chivalry, he was granted his knighthood.

                    The Code of Ethics

                    • Thou shalt believe all that the Church teaches and shalt obey all her commandments.
                    • Thou shalt defend the Church.
                    • Thou shalt respect all weaknesses and shalt constitute thyself the defender of them.
                    • Thou shalt love the country in which thou wast born.
                    • Thou shalt not recoil before thine enemy.
                    • Thou shalt make war against the infidel without cessation and without mercy.
                    • Thou shalt perform scrupulously thy feudal duties, if they be not contrary to the laws of God.
                    • Thou shalt never lie, and shalt remain faithful to they pledged word. Thou shalt be generous, and give largesse to everyone.
                    • Thou shalt be everywhere and always the champion of the Right and Good against Injustice and Evil.

                    Lords & Ladies

                    knightThe Knight

                    Knights – After the lord on the social ladder came the knight. The path to knighthood began at the age of seven, when a vassal sent his son to the lord’s house to become a page. For seven years a page was cared for by the women of the house, who instructed him in comportment, courtesy, cleanliness, and religion. At 14, the page became a squire, a personal attendant to a knight. From the knight he learned riding and all the skills of war, as well as hunting, hawking, and other sports.

                    The Knightly Code – At age twenty the squire was knighted in a religious ceremony after spending the night guarding his armour before a church altar. He had to swear to the knightly code which asked him to “protect the weak, defenceless, and helpless, and fight for the general welfare of all.” This code was rarely lived up to, but it remained the standard for chivalry and proper behaviour amongst the nobility for centuries. In theory the squire could be knighted on the battlefield for exceptional valour, but this event was much rarer than Hollywood would have us believe.

                    Fighting – Battles were usually small affairs, fought between the knights of individual lords. The object in a fight wasn’t necessarily to kill an opponent, but to capture and ransom him. Your foe was worth more to you alive than dead.

                    The Tournament – The object of the tourney was simply to unhorse your opponent, though often the fighting was so fierce that men were killed. Challengers erected tents at one end of the ground and hung a shield outside. A knight accepting the challenge rode up and touched his lance to the shield. The winner of the jousts was awarded a prize by the Queen of Beauty, elected for the occasion from amongst the women present.

                    By the 14th century tournaments became rousing fairs complete with singing, dancing, and feasting which might last for several days.

                    The Maiden

                    medievalladyMost noble girls were also carefully trained. They were usually taught at home by their mothers, often with the help of tutors or governesses. Some girls went to convents for their education and later became nuns, while others went to court of another noble. She was trained in good manners, hospitality, and household management. These skills were learned by observing the lady of the castle and following her example.

                    It was also common for the daughters of lords to learn to read and write. Some mastered other languages while most were expected to be able to do arithmetic and be familiar with land laws. They were taught to ride, to train and hunt with falcons, and to play chess. The ideal lady also knew how to embroider and weave, sing and dance, play a musical instrument, and tell stories. Having some medical knowledge was also thought to be useful for the future wife of a knight.

                    Three Types of Plague

                    Type 1 – Bubonic Plague

                    The most common form. This disease is characterised by an extremely high fever, chills, and ultimately delirium and death. The bacilli collect in the lymph nodes, particularly those in the armpits and groin. The nodes swell and become extremely painful. These swellings are called buboes, hence the name bubonic plague. Death from bubonic plague usually comes within a week.

                    Type 2 – Septicemic Plague

                    When an individual suffers an overwhelming invasion of plague bacilli, the germs may go directly into the bloodstream. Such an infection is known as septicemic plague. This form of plague kills more quickly, commonly within three days. There are even stories of a person going to bed healthy and being dead of plague the following morning. The victim may die before the swellings and other characteristic signs of plague appear. In some cases purplish or blackish spots appear on the victim’s skin. This symptom may account for the name Black Plague often used to describe the disease.

                    Type 3 – Pneumonic Plague

                    In this case the bacilli invade the lungs, which are called pneumons in Greek. Pneumonic plague can appear as a complication of bubonic plague, just as pneumonia can sometimes be a complication of influenza or even a common cold. Pneumonic plague can also be the original infection. Death from this form of plague comes with a few days.

                    More Information

                    Not everyone who contracted the plague died, but the chances of recovery in the fourteenth century was slight. Sometimes the buboes would burst and drain, and then the victim may have recovered. Medical authorities estimate that ninety percent of untreated cases of plague resulted in death. With modern medical treatment, particularly antibiotics, the mortality rate can be reduced to five percent.

                    fleaUsually in a plague epidemic, all three different forms of the infection are present.

                    Bubonic plague is spread by the bite of a flea that has previously bitten an infected rat. In this form of plague, there are not enough plague bacilli in the bloodstream of a human victim to cause infection in another human being.

                    In the septicemic form of plague, however, there is a high concentration of bacilli in the bloodstream. Some medical authorities believe that in this form the disease may be carried from one human victim to another by Pulex irritans, a flea that uses man as its primary host. Human fleas were common pests in medieval Europe.

                    Plague bacilli can also enter the bloodstream of a person who handles an infected rat or human through a break in the skin. This method of infection, however, is rare.

                    Pneumonic plague is the only form of plague which can be spread easily from one human being to another. During the disease the victim commonly coughs up blood and mucus. The tiny droplets of mucus coughed or sneezed into the air contain plague bacilli. These bacilli are breathed in by others. Once in the lungs of a new victim, the bacilli multiply and produce another case of pneumonic plague.

                    The Great Fire of 1666

                    Soon after midnight on Sunday 2 September 1666 a fire broke out in a baker’s shop in Pudding Lane, near London Bridge. It spread rapidly through the narrow streets where the high houses were tightly packed together. Like trees in a forest, they were tinder-dry after a long hot summer.

                    The Thames was so low that little water could be pumped up to fight the flames. The fire soon burnt the watersheels under the bridge which worked the pumps. By dawn it had readed the warehouses around London Bridge. They were full of inflammable materials such as tallow, sugar, oil, spirits, coal, hay and timber. A strong wind blowing from the east fanned the flames. The fire spread from the burning warehouses, first along the riverfront and then inland across the city. Sparks were blown by the wind and fell on thatched roofs and timbers, starting new fires and filling the sky with flame and smoke. In places the fire raced across the rooftops faster than a man could walk. In the streets below some people tried frantically to save themselves and their possessions while others tried in vain to fight and stop the fire. They were handicapped by carts, laden with goods, blocking the narrow streets.


                    For three days the wind blew and the fire raged through the densely packed streets and up the little hill which brought it to the centre of the city. Nother was spared; 87 of London’s 109 churches caught fire, the flames from their steeples marking the progress of the fire. The houses of the rich merchants and the halls of their trading companies, with their treasures in painting and woodwork, were consumed; the great oak roof of the Guildhall, centre of London’s government, burnt only eight days after orders had been given for extensive repairs to be made. Six acres of lead melted from the roof and crashed through the foor, shattering the tombs beneath, and the stones cracked causing fragments to fly in all directions.

                    By Wednesday, the fire had gone past the city wall and into the Liberties. It seemed about to spread to the royal palaces at Westminster when the wind dropped, the firefighters gained control and the fire ended almost as quickly as it had begun.

                    The Castle

                    The early castles were usually a type called motte-and-bailey. Castle builders made a huge, steep, earth mound surrounded by a very deep ditch. Around the top of the mound they erected a timber wall. Within the wall was a stronghold called a keep which was usually a tall, wooden, rectangular tower. Below the motte there was a large area enclosed by its own ditch and wall. This was the bailey. Usually the castle’s commander and his family lived in the keep, and his soldiers, with their horses and supplies, were housed in buildings in the bailey.


                    While the outside walls of a castle were often whitewashed, so that they gleamed in the sunlight. The walls inside were also whitewashed. In the great hall and the nobles’ chambers, the walls were often paneled with wood, painted white or in colours such as green and gold, and even embellished with murals. Hangings of painted cloth provided more decoration and helped cut down on drafts.

                    In the fourteenth century tapestries became popular wall coverings. Floors during this period, however, were generally bare wood or stone, strewn with sweet-smelling rushes and herbs. To take advantage of the natural light in order to read, do needlework or simply to view the garden, a cushioned window seat was usually placed beneath the large windows. Other lighting was provided by candles made from animal fat or sometimes (if it could be afforded) beeswax and oil lamps. Fireplaces provided both light and heat.

                    High, curtained beds, with feather filled mattresses piled with quilts and fur blankets kept the lords and ladies warm at night. The bed was so large that usually there was little other furniture in the chamber – just a few stools and carved wooden chests for storage. Close to the chamber would be a garderobe, a kind of indoor outhouse with a seat located over a chute that generally led to the moat. This may have been convenient but there was no toilet paper; hay was used instead.

                    The castle’s residents ate their meals together in the great hall, so a kitchen building was usually close by. Food was stored in or near the hall. A well and several cisterns, which caught rainwater, supplied water to the castle.

                    Castle under siege!

                    There were many ways of attacking a medieval castle, and almost as many means of countering such attacks.

                    Ways to Attack

                    catapultThe first step was to batter the walls with a variety of “engines”, the most common being the catapult or mangonel. Its throwing beam would haul a massive stone, a pot of flaming “Greek fire”, a dead horse (which might infect the garrison) or sometimes… a captured messenger (to show that all hope of relief was in vain).

                    Another popular method used, was undermining. Beginning some distance away, miners burrowed beneath the defences, supporting their tunnel with wooden props. They then filled the mine with combustible materials – such as, the fat of half a dozen pigs – and fired them, burning away the supports, collapsing the tunnel and, with luck, demolishing the wall above it.

                    If the castle was founded on solid rock or was surronded by a moat, undermining was a useless method and in these cases it was often necessary to storm the walls instead by using ladders or a “belfry”. A belfry was a wheeled tower with the uppermost platform being the same height as the top of the castle walls. Another method would have been to assault the wooden gate of the castle with an iron-headed battering ram, swung on a sturdy frame.

                    A traitor within the walls of the castle was the second most effective weapon, whereas, the most effective was cutting off the supplies to the castle. All castles had a well, but if this dried up or was poisoned, the defenders ultimately had to surrender.

                    Countering the Attack

                    If the garrison suspected that the castle was being undermined, they could sometimes locate the underground workings by standing jugs filled with water in different parts of the fortress and observing them when they vibrated. They could then sink a counter-mine from inside the castle, and either slaughter the opposing diggers with hand-to-hand fighting, or fill their tunnel with water.

                    belfyThe people defending the castle (this was usually any able person, not just the garrison) knew that eventually the walls of the castle would be attacked. In defence they would use anything that came to hand to stop the attackers breaching the walls. “Firepots” were dropped from above onto the people scaling the ladders or using the battering ram, along with javelins, stones, boiling oil and a scalding oatmeal mush which stuck to besiegers’ skins.

                    If the attackers managed to get within the outer gate, they probably found themselves trapped in a passage between two portcullises, here they would be showered with missiles from “murder holes’ in its roof.

                    The Medieval Horse

                    The horse was an essential part of the knight’s equipment. Although the knight sometimes fought on foot, he was mostly considered a horse-soldier or cavalryman. He took the greatest pride in the breeding, training and skill of his war horses or destrier.

                    horse1His horse was the knight’s pride and joy. It was carefully chosen for its strength, stamina and courage. The horse had to be able to charge into yelling, screaming crowds and had to be carefully schooled. In battle, the knight required his hands for holding his sword and shield, so the horse had to be guided by the rider’s knees.

                    It was not uncommon for the horse to be shod with sharpened shoes so that when their riders reined them in, they rose up on their haunches and beat about them with their deadly forefeet.

                    There were other kinds of medieval horses. Coursers or running horses were used for war or tournaments; palfreys for travelling or hunting, and hacks for everyday riding. Ladies rode small, spirited horses called jennets.

                    During the Middle Ages, the bridle consisted of a leather headstall, bit and reins. The headstall was made up of a series of straps fastened around the horse’s head to keep the bit in place. The most popular bit in medieval times was the snaffle. This was a simple jointed metal bar with cheekbars at each end containing rings on to which the cheekbands and the reins were fixed. In the early Middle Ages, the knights used single reins, but during the 13th century double reins became popular. These were often decorated with embroidery.

                    The saddle consisted of a strong wooden framework which was glued and riveted together, covered with sheepskin, leather or velvet. The covering not only made riding more comfortable but also prevented the horse’s sweat from seeping through into the wooden framework and causing it to rot.

                    The saddle was kept in place by a series of leather straps. The breast strap was a broad band which passed from the saddle, across the chest and prevented the saddle from slipping back. The girth strap passed from the saddle under the horse’s chest, holding the saddle secure. The crupper stretched from the saddle, along the back and looped under the horse’s tail, to stop the saddle slipping forward.

                    Horses were sometimes decked out in flowing robes called “caparisons” or “bards”. These were made of cloth, leather and sometimes even mail, although the latter must have been very heavy and uncomfortable. Later, around the 15th century, rich knights protected their war horses with leather or metal armour: a “chamfron” defended the horse’s face; a “crinet” guarded its neck; “flanchards” protected its flanks; and a crupper prevented injury to its back.