More morbid thoughts about mass epidemics.
In October 1347 a Genoese ship came into Messina harbour in Sicily. All of the crew were dead or dying. The harbour authorities quarantined the vessel and crew but it was to no avail as the disease (and they could not know this at the time) was carried by fleas hoisted by rats. Before long Italy was overcome with the disease and then Spain and France. The disease reached Southampton in the summer of 1348 and from there spread uncontrolled throughout the land. In the middle of the 14th century the population of England was estimated at 5 million. 40% of the population succumbed to the disease and the population only recovered its 1348 level in about 1700.
Here is an article written by the late George Watts for the book Titchfield: A History, first published in 1982.
In the 1340s the disease called plague, which had not been known in Europe for 500 years, spread like a forest fire across Asia and Europe, and arrived in England in the late summer of 1348. This terrible epidemic came to be known as the Black Death. It remained as an endemic disease in England until the late seventeenth century, when the plague of London in 1665 is usually taken as marking the end of that particular long-lasting outbreak. Smaller isolated outbreaks have occurred since.
Plague has a number of forms: one, pneumonic plague, can be spread by coughing or sneezing; but the commonest form, bubonic plague, signalled by dark lumps on the body, seems to be most often spread by fleas living on rats. The spread of the plague is thought to have been connected with the development of medieval trade and agriculture, and the movement of carts and ships loaded with grain – and with rats.
Titchfield may have been one of the first places in England to suffer from the plague. The traditional date for its arrival in England is June 1348 in Weymouth: it was probably raging in Titchfield by September, for a large number of deaths were reported in the October and November manorial courts. We can guess that the infection had come to Titchfield direct by ship from France rather than overland from Dorset or one of the nearby towns. The plague raged in Titchfield throughout the winter, a very large number of deaths being reported in the March court of 1349, and further deaths in May. Altogether, the deaths of 123 Titchfield tenants were reported in those two years, and since there were probably no more than 150 tenants before the plague, the mortality among tenants may have been as high as 80%. What the mortality was amongst children, women and people too poor to be tenants we do not know. In the remote hamlet of Quob north of Funtley everyone died. In a Titchfield court of 1350 it was reported that to this court came Thomas Schad for the tithingman of Quob and witnessed that all and each of the tithing died in the present pestilence and that all land and tenements within the bounds have come into the hand of Lord John des Roches (the local landowner) who sent Schad to this day for the tithingman; he was in mercy but was pardoned and presented that all was well. It was three years before anyone appeared again to speak for Quob.
Outbreaks of the plague did not cease in 1349. There was a further epidemic in 1360-61, another in 1374, and more in later years. Through their appearances in the courts, we can see how these outbreaks affected particular Titchfield families. The Sweins, for instance, were probably the most important family group in Titchfield before 1349, six or more of the family normally holding land, and the family must have consisted of thirty or more individuals in 1348. Six Swein tenants died in the first plague and two in the plague of 1360-61; these two were succeeded by their widows, neither of whom had children surviving at their deaths. When Alice widow of Roger, the last known Swein of the fourteenth century died at the very end of Edward Ill’s reign, her land was taken by another villager. In fact Sweins reappeared in Titchfield in later centuries, perhaps by the return of a distant relative from a nearby village.
The Frends, a small family group with three branches before the Black Death, lost two tenants in the first plague and two in the second and were wiped out before 1379, disappearing entirely from Titchfield history. On the other hand the Kechs, who were one of the most important local family groups, with four or five tenants before the Black Death, had the extreme good fortune of coming through all the outbreaks up to 1377 without losing a tenant. In the rental of that year their principal representatives John and Henry Kech both appear with holdings they had collected from other families, John with holdings of 32, 10 and 8 acres, and Henry with 32 and 14 acres. The Hirchons, a smaller family group which had only branched out into several separate families in the 1320s were fortunate in quite a different way. They lost five members in the first plague, but came unscathed through the later outbreaks and showed great powers of recovery, having apparently inexhaustible resources of sons who took up less fortunate people’s vacant holdings wherever possible. In 1377 William, Thomas and Richard Hirchon all held 32 acre virgates, and two Roger Hirchons had smaller holdings.
People who survived the plagues then were often better off. But in general the population was lower, the market for goods of all kinds was smaller and there was a long period of economic depression, in Titchfield as elsewhere in the country. The population of the parish for two hundred years remained lower than it had been in 1349. We can trace the economic effects of the plague epidemics in the records of the abbey’s demesne farms as well as in the lives of its tenants. In 1348, for instance, the abbey had on all its estates 3,876 sheep; in 1390 it had only 2,859 and in 1420 only 1,396. Of oxen, cows, horses and pigs it had in 1348 a total of 810, in 1390 706. and in 1420 only 535. One important source of income affected by this decline was the sale of wool. We know that early in the fourteenth century the abbey had been selling to Italian merchants every year an average of 15 sacks of wool worth in all £90: that income must have fallen to £30 or £40 a century later. The abbey ceased to be the energetic and ambitious landlord it had been for the first hundred years of its existence. It was glad to collect what rents it could; some of its buildings fell into disrepair, and it was sometimes in debt. It interfered less and less often with the activities of tenants, who seem to have been allowed, for instance, to enclose their common fields and to fell their trees much more freely than in the years before the Black Death. Most strikingly, after a time the canons ceased to make those careful notes of their business and possessions which survive today to tell us so much about the village in the fourteenth century. As a result, we at present know relatively little about Titchfield in the fifteenth century, and there is still much research to be done.